Scandal over Russia’s Union of Journalists has acquired commercial flavor


MOSCOW, May 17 (RIA Novosti) - A scandal involving Russia's Union of Journalists, which has been ordered to vacate its offices in a building on Zubovsky Blvd., in the center of Moscow, for violating terms on the commercial lease of state property, has ignited heated debates in the Russian media.

The main part of the building, built in 1980, hosts the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA Novosti), which has the building on its balance.

The Russian media circulated a number of rumors, including claims that the eviction had been ordered personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Accusations were also directed against former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who officially assigned the building to RIA Novosti in 1991, which had already occupied the premises for 11 years, although under a different name - as Novosti Press Agency.

In reality, the president's decree dealt mainly with changes of the agency's status from a public organization to a state-run news agency. Gorbachev's successor, Boris Yeltsin later confirmed the new status of the agency, leaving the building under state ownership.

In 1998, the Union of Journalists was granted uncompensated use of several offices in the building by presidential decree. The document did not contain any specific clauses on the term and the termination of the rent-free use.

At present, the state accuses the union of subletting its offices to commercial organizations, which is illegal under current legislation.

"I have never seen an indefinite uncompensated use agreement in my life, and I do not think any tax authorities would allow such an agreement," said Dmitry Agranovsky, a lawyer and an expert on property ownership regulations.

"A gratuitous use and a lease are completely different things. The difference is established by the Russian Civil Code. We often deal with cases when facilities under uncompensated use agreements are sub-leased, because that allows the lessors to avoid tax payments. An indefinite agreement can be terminated, in principle, depending on the way it was drawn up," the lawyer said.

After a recent inspection of the building, the Federal Agency for the Management of Federal Property established that the Union of Journalists had sub-leased a number of its offices to commercial organizations.

The list of illegal lessees includes President-Concert, a company that caters food to corporate clients, ROMIR Monitoring, a public opinion poll firm, a souvenir shop, a notary office and other companies. The inspection even revealed that some offices occupied by the union had cages with wild animals that were kept there without necessary permits.

Federal property officials also inspected offices occupied by RIA Novosti, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the English-language Russia Today television channel, and other tenants. As a result, the Foreign Ministry has been ordered to vacate about 3,000 square meters of leased offices, the Union of Journalists - 929 square meters (about 32% of all facilities that the union occupies in the building), and three other organizations - about 1,500 square meters.

Overall, the above-mentioned organizations must vacate about 5,000 square meters of offices in the RIA Novosti building on Zubovsky Blvd., and the future use of vacated offices will be determined by the official owner of the building, the Federal Agency for the Management of Federal Property.

Russia Today television channel, which has been widely accused of attempts to push the Journalist Union out of the building and occupy the vacated space, denied the allegations.

"Our [Russia Today] journalists are simply doing their daily job - a 24-hour TV news coverage. They do not participate in squabbles over property," the channel said in a press release.

Property officials decided at a May 15 meeting that the union should file its proposals to review the terms of the gratuitous use agreement before May 22.

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